Private Mars Colonization Venture Contracts with Lockheed, SSTL for Robotic Precursor Studies

by

WASHINGTON — Mars One, a Dutch nonprofit that wants to send volunteer settlers on one-way trips to Mars beginning in 2025, gave Lockheed Martin Space Systems and Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL) contracts to design a robotic lander and telecommunications orbiter intended for launch to the red planet in 2018. 

The contracts are for designs studies only and, at a combined value of only about $340,000, are a long way from a commitment to purchase space hardware.

Lockheed Martin will design the Mars One lander, which will be based on the 350-kilogram Phoenix lander the Denver-based company helped NASA send to the red planet in 2008. U.K.-based SSTL will design the telecom orbiter, according to Mars One’s Dec. 10 press release. Lockheed’s contract is worth $256,000, while SSTL’s contract is worth 60,000 euros, or roughly $82,000, according to Bas Lansdorp, co-founder and chief executive officer of Mars One.

Through merchandise sales and donations, Mars One had raised $183,870 as of Oct. 31, according to the company’s website. The group has also raised revenue from a group of seven sponsor companies, but Lansdorp would not disclose the value of that contribution. Finally, more than 200,000 people applied to the company’s astronaut program, each of whom paid an application fee ranging from $5 to $75, depending on country of origin.

The Lockheed-designed lander would carry experimental equipment designed to extract water from martian regolith, Mars One said in its press release. It would also be equipped with a video camera “to make continuous video recordings,” and demonstrate the operation of new thin-film solar panels on the planet’s surface.

The Phoenix craft on which Mars One’s lander will be based cost NASA about $475 million to build. The mission was selected in 2003 as a reflight of Mars Polar Lander, which crashed into the red planet during its December 1999 landing attempt. Phoenix, which took advantage of hardware built for the canceled 2001 Mars Surveyor Lander, launched in 2007 aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta 2 rocket, touched down in May 2008 and operated for about five months.

Meanwhile, Mars One has SSTL under contract for a “high-level design mission concept study” to look at adapting the company’s medium-size GMP-T geostationary communications satellite platform for use in Mars orbit, SSTL spokesman Joelle Sykes wrote in an email.

“The minimum communication requirement [for the Mars One orbiter] is provision of a link for real-time HD television broadcast,” Sykes told SpaceNews

In its geostationary configuration, the GMP-T has room for 26 transponders and weighs as much as 3,400 kilograms when fully fueled. A GMP-T spacecraft takes between two and three years to manufacture and ship, according to an SSTL fact sheet.

Mars One, based in Amersfoort, Netherlands, has not identified a launch provider for these robotic spacecraft, nor said how it will pay for them.

“We’re in discussion with a number of potential partners,” Lansdorp wrote in an email to SpaceNews. He declined to identify any of them.

Lockheed and SSTL are not the first companies Mars One has paid for hardware studies. In March, the company engaged Paragon Space Development Corp., Tucson, Ariz., to design the life support systems and environmental suits Mars One settlers would need for the journey to and exploration of the solar system’s fourth planet.

Mars One, which arrived on the scene in 2012, wants to send volunteer human settlers on one-way trips to the red planet. Crewed launches would begin in 2025, to be preceded in 2018 by the lander and telecommunications orbiter that would serve as the group’s first precursor mission. Those launches were originally scheduled for 2023 and 2016. Launches to Mars from Earth, using current rocket technology, are possible only about every two years. The cost of the first crewed launch to Mars will be about $6 billion, Mars One estimates, with subsequent crew launches estimated at about $4 billion each, according to the company’s website. 

Similar to the Golden Spike initiative that former NASA associate administrator for science Alan Stern unveiled in 2012, Mars One wants to fund its audacious venture to send humans into the solar system with a high-profile media campaign. 

In Mars One’s case, the media campaign would include a reality television series that follows the training of the group’s volunteer settlers, and a film, Lansdorp said.

Mars One “is in advanced negotiations with a major studio for an overall deal for the film [and] television properties,” Lansdorp told SpaceNews.

One thing the group already has in plenty are volunteers. Mars One announced in September that 200,000 aspiring settlers had responded to its call for volunteer astronauts.

 

Follow Dan on Twitter: @Leone_SN